Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Plea from climate activists: No more false hope, Mr President

By Alex Lenferna and Ahmed Mokgopo 27 August 2020

5 December 2004. East Rand. Gauteng. South Africa. Coal pollution. The Scaw Metals facory outside Germiston emits smoke as it is silhouetted against the evening sky. (Photo: Jan Hamman/Gallo Images)

For those worried about the climate crisis, it might be a relief to have a president who appears to take climate change seriously. However, appearances can be deceiving.

Alex Lenferna and Ahmed Mokgopo

In his latest weekly newsletter, President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined a suite of actions on climate change the government is supposedly taking. On the face of it they seem impressive, but in reality the government is failing dismally to address the climate crisis.

Let’s take a few of the flagship examples of climate action that the president highlights in his letter. As we’ll see, under the president’s smooth rhetoric lies inaction, delay and actions that actually make the climate crisis much worse. 

Let’s focus first on the president’s flagship climate body – the Presidential Climate Change Commission to coordinate our national climate response. In his letter, the president talked of establishing the commission, but he has been talking about establishing it almost as long as he has been president. 

In a recent meeting, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries revealed that they cannot even release a timeline of when the commission will be established. The joke is that commissions are where action goes to die. Yet, we don’t even have a timeline for the establishment of the commission.

One thing we do have a timeline on is the climate crisis, which the world’s scientists are telling us we are rapidly running out of time to deal with. The president’s continued delays on establishing his commission are wildly out of step with the urgency of the climate crisis. The president is fiddling while the Earth burns, often quite literally. 

Next up on the president’s list of accomplishments, we have the Climate Change Bill. The bill is intended “to create a framework to implement the Vision 2030 call for a just transition to a climate-resilient and lower-carbon economy and society”. On the face of it, it sounds like a positive and desperately needed bill. In reality though, the Climate Change Bill has been held in relative secrecy within NEDLAC, so it is difficult to know what it entails. Additionally, while the bill stalls year after year, government actions are pushing us away from a just transition to a lower carbon economy. Instead, we are locking ourselves into a higher carbon economy, while no just transition plans are in place. 

Going in the wrong direction

Consider our energy plans which are deepening our reliance on expensive and polluting coal, oil and gas. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) under Minister Gwede Mantashe rigged our energy plans to suppress renewables and favour polluting energy sources. They did so despite the fact that renewables are our most affordable and job-creating form of energy.  

At the same time, the DMRE are enacting a rapacious extractive agenda, sacrificing vast swathes of the country in the name of fossil fuel extraction, often against the will of communities. They’re working to open up our coasts to oil and gas drilling, our water-scarce regions to fracking, and more and more of our country to coal mines. 

The president himself is behind one of the biggest new coal-fired projects – a proposed heavy-polluting, water-intensive Special Economic Zone in a water-scarce part of Limpopo. The Chinese-backed project is mired in corruption and secrecy. Remarkably, one of it’s main backers is a Chinese businessman who is literally a fugitive from the law in Zimbabwe. 

Our public finance institutions are also continuing to bankroll fossil fuel projects to the tune of billions every year. Most recently, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) has committed to providing R2-billion for gas in Mozambique. These institutions show little sign of stopping the use of public money to prop up fossil fuels and are failing to reflect, and change their financing towards shaping a more equitable and just society.  

In his letter, the president also discussed the roll-out of solar water heaters as an example of success. However, he glossed over how the DMRE’s programme to roll out solar water heaters has been mired by corruption and delays. 

Investigations show that since 2018, the DMRE have installed just 200 of the 87,000 heaters it purchased for hundreds of millions of rands under its rebooted solar water heater programme. Meanwhile, to house the unused solar water heaters, the state has paid R289-million in storage costs over the past three years. 

In the face of all of this, it’s hard to share the president’s sense that “we are a significant global player in this space”. We are one of the most carbon-intensive and unequal countries in the world, and many of our current plans are worsening both crises. 

A better world is possible

The Covid-19 recovery plan could be an opportunity to ensure a just recovery that tackles environmental and social justice. As the Cry of the Xcluded have called for, we could enact a radical Green New Deal, putting millions of people to work building a most just and inclusive zero carbon economy.  

As research from Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies shows: “Unlocking renewable energy investments as part of the post-lockdown stimulus package would bring multiple benefits, from fostering inclusive growth to stimulating industrial development and sustainable energy systems.”   

In line with that vision, we could be building a Green New Eskom and enacting a rapid and just transition to a renewable energy future. Doing so, we could tackle our climate crisis, finally deal with our load shedding woes and put people to work building a more just energy future.   

The president’s speech makes it seem like we are embracing such opportunities. In reality though, we are often going in the opposite direction. Rather than raising the alarm and telling us we need to act, the president’s letter serves to put us to sleep as the fires of the climate crisis threaten our world. 

The President’s new climate denial

The president is essentially peddling a new form of climate denial. The president’s brand of climate denial creates a problematic complacency. That’s the last thing we need when we should be panicking at the lack of action from our government to tackle one of the biggest crises of our time.

In the face of a crisis, the bar for leadership should not be rhetoric, it should be action. If the president is serious about climate change, he needs to act. We should not be applauding him or the ANC for a letter heavy on misleading rhetoric that makes it seem like all is well. Rather, we must be pushing him to act. 

If we do not embrace this moment to ensure a green and just recovery from Covid-19, we will blow our opportunity to keep climate change from crossing the vital 1.5C threshold agreed to under the Paris Climate Agreement. If we do not act now, it will be too late. Action, not rhetoric, is now desperately needed. DM/MC

Alex Lenferna and Ahmed Mokgopo are South African climate justice campaigners with 350Africa.org. Alex serves as secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition.

Gallery

AMABHUNGANE

SARS hits Guptas with major tax bill and unearths R105m in mystery payments

By Dewald van Rensburg for amaBhungane